Reflections Across the Pond: Green, Muslim and American
The flying question
It was 2004. I was at a public meeting on climate change. The lecture hall was buzzing with energy. Ideas, questions and answers were exchanged between the audience – mostly students – and the speakers.
One of the speakers was Mayer Hillman. Mayer is the author of the informative ‘How We Can Save the Planet’, and during the course of this event did not hesitate in showing his distaste to flying.
He also made it more personal and correspondingly more uncomfortable.
“Who will now commit to never flying again?”
He threw the question at us with force, like a long-standing campaigner who believed it was now or never. As he asked this, I checked in with myself and found myself grappling internally.
I was aware that the warming effect of flying can be several times greater than other forms of transport because greenhouse gases have more of an impact at high altitude. Also, the distances we fly tend to be large with flying being a cheap and time-saving travelling option.
The place that aviation takes with regards social norms and its contribution to climate change is hard to over-emphasise. This is one reason why why there is a necessary movement resisting its expansion.
In response to Mayer’s question, a surprising number of people put up their hand. The part of me that wanted to be seen as righteous wished I was one of them, but I would have been lying if I did. With dozens of close friends and relatives in other continents, uncomfortable though it felt with Mayer’s glare piercing the room, I had to keep my hand down.
Although I had, by that time, virtually made an internal commitment to not flying for leisure holidays – and even in other situations to use coach, train or boat, for example – I could not commit to never flying again.
It was Autumn 2010. Here was another moment when I grappled with the flying question. My wife is from the US and I had not seen most of her immediate family for three and a half years. At the same time, she would be in the States for a significant period of time to complete her PhD. Was I to also go?
DC Green Muslims
Within a few days of my landing, I visited Washington DC to catch up with an aunt and uncle. I found out from my friend Mohamad Chakaki, co-founder of DC Green Muslims, that Sarah Jawaid from the group was speaking at an inter-faith climate change meeting on the day I was due to arrive!
This sounded perfect, and I managed to make it just in time for this event, being met at the local metro station by Ryan Strom, another member of the DC Green Muslims team.
On the panel along with Sarah, was a Christian and Jewish speaker. Plenty of ideas were shared. Some of the more memorable comments included one from the Jewish speaker, Josh Tulkin, Founding Board Member of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, who pointed out the disconnect between our actions and climate impacts.
He made it clear that when we start our car, for example, it’s not that we’re literally putting a gun to someone’s head, yet the accumulative effect of these seemingly innocent actions build up to cause loss of life, which goes against all faith traditions.
Another memorable comment came from Sarah, who described an innovative means by which the DC Green Muslims had stimulated people to be more present in themselves and to their surroundings. She and her co-organisers had invited people to a Green Dinner event.
Shortly before the start time, the windows to the room were boarded up, and cardboard was balanced vertically on the tables to prevent people, once they had arrived and taken their seat, from seeing their neighbour. The idea was to wake people up to the space they were in and to notice how it made them feel, however awkward or uncomfortable.
Sarah added that the state of the altered room was basically a metaphor for what we often experience daily in our lives, yet become desensitised to. Following a period of being present to this altered room, the participants were then given a chance to re-arrange it themselves to their liking!
The DC Green Muslims have impressed me with their imaginative grassroots approach, and this is but one example.
Back in New Jersey, my wife and I took a day trip to New York absorbing some of Manhattan. It was a Friday and we stopped for prayers at the Park 51 Community Centre, a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero.
The sermon (khutba) was given by Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, and it was one of the most liberating I had experienced. It wasn’t just the content, but the way it was delivered – with love and presence, opening up a space that was much bigger than just words being spoken.
The content itself was about compassion, and inviting Muslim to move beyond the label ‘Muslim’ to what the term actually points to, the surrendering of the self to the Divine – and to reflect on what that means including in our caring for those who might have different viewpoints to our own. I left the centre with a feeling of gratitude and hope.
That same evening, we were fortunate to be able to meet Ibrahim Abdul-Matin and to attend a workshop he was facilitating at Columbia University in New York. Ibrahim is the author of the newly released and very readable book Green Deen – What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet. At his workshop, there were about 30 participants, mostly students.
After some mostly seated exercises, Ibrahim got us moving – we took positions in different corners of the room according to where we stood in response to questions he threw at us. We then shared with those standing with us, and then with the wider group. It was a well run, engaging workshop, and Ibrahim’s background in community organising was evident.
One of the comments he made to the group that stayed with me went something like this,
“You have value not because of what you own, what you wear, nor because of what you earn. You have value simply because God created you”.
This wasn’t academic stuff, rather a way – albeit pitched for those who believe in God – of getting to the basis of our self-worth that necessarily brings down the walls of an artificial value-system which society imposes onto us, and out of which arises consumerism and the compulsive pursuit of status.
It was the last week of my trip and I spent a couple of days in Boston, Massachusetts. From there, I visited Cambridge to connect with Mohamad Chakaki, a friend whom I mentioned earlier and with whom I thoroughly enjoy hearing and sharing ideas. I also met with Misha, a close relative and outstanding student, who is at Harvard, and an Auntie on my mother’s side.
This was my second time in Cambridge, having visited nineteen years previously after a period of working in Canada during a summer. The area I visited – around Harvard Square – was certainly much busier, with plenty more cars, but I could still sense some of the quality of intimacy that I had experienced the previous time.
Progressive New York Radio
After an extended seven hour coach journey back to New Jersey, I took to the phone to be interviewed by Saadia Aslam from Radio Tahrir. Radio Tahrir is a weekly programme about the Arab and Muslim Community and is broadcast on the independent New York radio station, WBAI Radio. Saadia asked me about the work Wisdom In Nature is doing in the UK.
I talked about our new booklet, Islam & Climate Change: A Call to Heal, our Islamic Community Food Project, and our emphasis on process and working in a holistic way that includes consciously integrating social ecology & conscious group work into our approach.
Saadia was also keen to hear my experiences of the Green Islam movement in the US. I enjoyed sharing and am impressed by the dedicated work the radio station is doing.
The podcast of my interview can be found on the following webpage – It’s the November 23rd 2010 broadcast, and the interview starts at about 30 minutes after the music piece by Maher Zain.
During the course of my trip, on several occasions I heard the name IMAN. IMAN or the Inner-City Muslim Action Network is an organisation that Ibrahim Abdul-Matin profiles in his book, and which Mohamad Chakaki also enthusiastically talked to me about in Cambridge.
I discovered that IMAN aims to weave together social justice with the arts, and to also bring in the environmental.
One of their projects is called Project Green Reentry. This involves supporting ex-offenders in Chicago with on-the-job training as they essentially construct their own homes sustainably. This is meant to help them to socially integrate whilst simultaneously respecting the earth.
As a keen believer in a holistic approach – I increasingly feel that isolated environmentalism, or indeed isolated activism of any kind, is ultimately self-defeating as it will work against the interconnected nature of things – I am keen to learn more about the intelligent work that IMAN is doing.
The two sides of the Pond
So, how does the ‘Green Islam’ movement in the US compare with that in the UK?
Whilst I haven’t explored the movement in the US sufficiently enough to give a confident answer, it was clear that the folks I met there hold alot of respect for the work going on here! Whilst it’s true, however, that we’ve been working with this for a longer period, perhaps they underestimate what they have achieved in such a short space of time.
My own sense about the movement in the US, from direct contact with a few key individuals, is that it has set in motion a creative energy and quality of work that is refreshing.
There also seems to be a healthy experimenting with ways, verbally or otherwise, to express Islamic principles so they can be practical and alive to those of us growing up in contemporary western culture. I felt that our more ‘mature’ movement in the UK can certainly take inspiration and lessons from the movement there.
At the same time, we have a grounding and a history through which many lessons have been learnt and a certain degree of resilience developed. All in all, there appears to be much scope for a mutually nurturing relationship, whose benefits can and must extend beyond our immediate space and time.
Back in the UK
Now in the UK, I am soon met by the graceful dance of snowfall, and the corresponding clumsiness of our predictable inability to cope well with it! I am grateful for having had the privilege of being able to travel to the US.
The technology we have today can make vast distances appear small and I am acutely aware of the need to take time to reflect and to be grateful, and to also acknowledge that there are physical limits to the pace of consumption that our planet can take. Although I have not chosen never to fly again, I have consciously chosen to not take flying for granted.
So, now it’s also time to get some more work. The economic situation. Hmm, that’s another aspect which, in this inter-connected world, needs co-healing…
© Muzammal Hussain
Muzammal Hussain has had almost 20 years experience in ecological action and social change. He is also a medical doctor and therapist. He is a Representative of Wisdom In Nature who offer trainings in Permaculture, Islamic Ecology and Faciltation/Conscious Group Work:Check out their latest courses here>>